Thursday, March 23

Champions League: Luis Diaz brings the spark to fire tired Liverpool back to final over stubborn Villarreal

With 45 minutes to go and their quadruple dreams hanging in the balance, Liverpool seemed spent. Every minute of their emotionally draining title win behind closed doors, last year’s injury-riddled slog, the relentless run of a season that will end with them playing every game available to them: They were writ large across Jurgen Klopp’s squad.

Enter Luis Diaz, Liverpool’s fresh-legged savior. It is no exaggeration to hand him such a title. Villarreal’s caution, and their goalkeeper’s propensity to let things squeeze between his legs, doubtless aided their visitors cause in turning the tide on the night. But most of all, this team needed someone to play without fear of failure.

If others had miscued the bicycle kick he did early after entering the fray in the second half, their heads might have dropped. Diaz only became more determined. Moments after Fabinho had restored their advantage in the tie, he was on hand to deliver the knockout blow for Villarreal. Twenty one games into his Liverpool career, the Colombian has already earned a spot in the illustrious annals of this club’s history. He’s the man who saved them from a potentially great humiliation on the European stage.

That is what they were heading toward. In the first half, Liverpool were nothing short of baffling. The calamity of the goals was remarkable enough, we will come to them, but they were not freak occurrences in an otherwise adequate performance. Across the pitch from minute one to minute 45, it was as if these players had been possessed. It seemed as if Klopp’s side had had their mojo stolen by nefarious aliens intent on using their talents to imprison the Looney Tunes.

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If you have a more convincing explanation for Thiago’s 70 percent pass completion in the first half, comfortably the worst he has registered since moving to Anfield, I am all ears. It was not just the passes he was making, or trying to, but also the ones that came his way. When Virgil van Dijk knocked a routine delivery his way, Thiago seemed convinced the ball was bound for Diogo Jota. The Portuguese forward was not convinced that was the case and Villarreal stole possession.

And yet, only three of his teammates completed a higher percentage of their passes than Thiago. Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate were so threatened by the Villarreal press that it seemed they had no ideas beyond launching it long toward Sadio Mane. It has been a while since an opponent not named Manchester City has taken any approach to Liverpool beyond cowering in their defensive third, but that does not fully explain why the fundamentals so abandoned Klopp’s side.

Trent Alexander-Arnold free kicks were flying far and wide away from their targets. Fabinho was bouncing off opponents. Diogo Jota’s touch let him down with regularity. These players looked spent, physically and mentally, no wonder in Game 57 of their season.

Andy Robertson looked like he had just come from playing every minute of the last two years without a break, no wonder Etienne Capoue could ghost in behind him to square Pervis Estupinan’s cross along the face of goal, Boulaye Dia slotting in after three minutes to deny Liverpool the quiet start they craved.

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Capoue just had more spring in his step. So did Francis Coquelin, determined to bend every rule in the book in pursuit of an edge on the night, when he got the run on Alexander-Arnold to flick in a cross from the right. Perhaps, reaching parity in the tie with over a quarter of it left to play did not suit Unai Emery. Suddenly, his side learned they had something to lose. They could not help but want to protect it.

And so the second half brought something of a return to the first leg. Villarreal dropped back toward their penalty area, Thiago’s pass success rocketed up (by 25 percentage points to be precise) and the pressure built on Geronimo Rulli’s penalty area. He could not quite cope, Fabinho’s low drive fizzing through his legs.

Diaz sniffed blood. As had been the case in the first leg Villarreal heads dropped. In the space of 12 minutes, they went from all square in the tie to out of Europe. Alexander-Arnold, suddenly afforded an entire flank to himself, cut onto his left foot, hanging a cross into space for Diaz to attack. Once more the ball squirted through Rulli, whose humiliation was complete moments later when he came hurtling out beyond his penalty area only to be soundly rounded by Mane, who would roll the ball into an empty net.

With that, the Senegalese forward would become the highest scoring African player in the history of the Champions League knockout stages, a sign of how Mane has been doing for years what Diaz did tonight, delivering in the biggest moments. They certainly needed him.

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